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What’s Happened to the Jack London Square Farmer’s Market?

7 Oct

As you might already know, I religiously wake up on Sunday mornings and walk down to the Temescal Farmer’s Market. Though some think it’s small, it’s the perfect size for me, and I can almost always find what I need (except on those days I sleep too late and arrive when the best stuff has already been snatched up).

Well, today I happened to be near Jack London Square so I thought I’d check out the market. It’s been 2 or 3 years since I’ve been there, but I remembered it as a very long market with dozens of stalls. I remembered crowds of people picking up produce, breads, prepared foods, soaps, and crafts.

Either my memory’s a bit off, or the market has significantly declined over the past years. Today it seemed to be but a shadow of my memory. It was still long, spanning several blocks, but the stands were spaced fairly far from each other, and on the last block their were only four or five stands.

As I walked into the market, I quickly spotted Happy Boy Farms and snagged some lettuce, since I know they always have the best selection. I passed up their tomatoes though, thinking there would be at least a few other farmers selling tomatoes (I like to spread my money throughout the market). As I walked through the market though, I started to realize that spending money at various stands would not be an easy task.

Besides Happy Boy, there were about three other stands selling organic vegetables. One of them had tomatoes, but they didn’t look very good. The rest of them featured squash, peppers, greens, broccoli, etc. Most of it looked pretty good, but none of those items were on my short shopping list, which consisted of lettuce, tomatoes, basil and pears.

I kept my eye out for basil (an item I sometimes miss at Temescal when I sleep in). I found some conventionally grown basil and some organic basil, but the bunches were all wilted, severely sunburned and full of holes bugs had chewed in them. Now, I’m a forgiving shopper at farmers’ markets, but this was a bit much for me so I ended up skipping that purchase.

Two stands sold pears, but they were conventional and didn’t look very appealing so I skipped those too and opted instead for some plums from Kashiwase Farms (only one week before the season’s over!). For the tomatoes, I ended up backtracking to revisit Happy Boy and pick up some beautiful organic heirlooms.

The market wasn’t a total waste though. I did pick up some yummy Beckman’s bread (local, not organic) and some Jasmine incense, neither of which I ever would have found at Temescal or any of the other markets I frequent.

This experience got me thinking and brought to mind an excellent blog post on The Ethicurean by Marc R. aka Mental Masala, discussing an SF Chronicle article about how farmers’ markets can sometimes hurt farmers and discussing the exodus of many farmers from the markets. The Chronicle article centers on the experience of the San Francisco Ferry Building market, which now is full of tourists who may want to purchase a couple prepared items but aren’t interested in lettuce, tomatoes, and kale.

As I purchased my lettuce today, I overheard a woman ask if it would be ok for her to save the lettuce overnight and fly back to Washington with it. I looked around at the shoppers and noticed that unlike at the Temescal or Berkeley markets, they mostly were not weighed down by full bags of produce. One man carried a single baggett to his car. Others ate prepared food, but were carrying no groceries. Were these tourists, or just more casual shoppers than I’m used to?

Another issue brought up by Marc’s post and the Chronicle article is that the Bay Area is now flooded with farmers’ markets. This decreases the profitability of farmers at all the markets and in turn forces some farms to leave the markets altogether. I also wondered whether some of the farmers that used to sell produce at Jack London had migrated to Temescal, where it’s always crowded and it seems that nearly everyone is a serious shopper.

The only other explanation is that my memory is off. I used to be less picky about organic produce (though even the conventional produce today was not abundant), and several years ago, after moving here from LA, any farmer’s market was incredible for me. Also, I think it’s true that this market has always been less produce oriented and more focused on artisan items, such as soap, clothing, and jewelry.

If you’re a regular at the Jack London market or at least have some more experience there over the years than I do, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Is the market really on a decline or am I just imagining this? And if it’s declining, why?

Fire Arts Festival

22 Jul

Every year, the Crucible’s Fire Arts Festival in West Oakland brings the Bay Area a preview of the best part of Burning Man: lots of great art, tons of fire, a mixture of people, and man-made beauty in an unexpected place.

Athena, BART, Cranes

Photo by Dave Wright, courtesy of thecrucible.org

This year was no exception. I went on Friday night and enjoyed fire arts with thousands of others from the Bay Area and beyond.

Though I go most every year, this year I knew I had to go because the Flaming Lotus Girls brought back the Serpent Mother, which was my favorite art piece on the playa last year. The Serpent Mother is a nearly 170′ long skeleton of metal and fire, its tail wrapping around and protecting a precious egg in the center, and its robotic head moving up and down spewing fire. But the best part is that it’s interactive. Approach its spine and press buttons to shoot flame throwers in the air off various vertebrates. At both Burning Man 2006 and the Fire Arts Festival, it was the communal gathering place. The location where you could be assured to run into your closest friend and an acquaintance you haven’t seen in years.

serpent-mother.jpg

But amazingly, the Serpent Mother was not the most over-the-top attraction at the festival. Imagine this: an opera in an empty lot in West Oakland, with BART trains passing by, the faces of incredulous onlookers pressed up against the windows. And this was not just any opera, it was “The Fire Odyssey,” the Crucible’s interpretation of Odysseus’s story. Zeus and the gods were perched in several story high metal sculptures of the female body, created by Karen Cusolito and Dan DasMann, the artists who brought us Passage in 2005. (These 4 figures are just half of the figures that will be featured in this year’s Crude Awakening at BM.)

trojan-horse.jpg

On the stage, all the familiar characters of the Odyssey appeared, including the Trojan Horse (above), the Cyclops, the Sirens, and Calypso. Every scene featured fire and/or water, moving from graceful to jarring. When Odysseus travels to Hades, lines of fire engulf the stage and surrounding set. Odysseus moves on to do graceful dances with the Sirens and then Calypso. And in one of the final scenes, Odysseus and his son draw swords and shields to fight off Penelope’s suitors, and the suitors fight back with fire. One spins poi, another fights with a fire hoola-hoop, and yet another plunges upon Odysseus from a tight rope on fire.

While the Fire Arts Festival is no substitute for Burning Man, it’s really great to see this annual event becoming part of the larger Bay Area culture. Oakland residents who might never be able to afford Burning Man (or who might just not want to spend a week in the desert) are able to appreciate the awe inspiring fire and arts that burners have been appreciating for years.

And it’s a great reminder that Burning Man is less than a couple months away and I need to start getting ready. Which I really should be doing right now…

Summer’s Here

8 Jul

In the Bay Area, seasons aren’t very distinguishable by the weather. Some leaves change colors and fall off trees. And it does get a bit cooler during the winter and a bit warmer during the summer, but there’s no consistency.

So I’ve learned to track the seasons by produce. And over the past few weeks, I’ve realized that summer’s here. Tomatoes, apricots, corn, peaches, nectarines, avocados, and huge crowds at the farmers’ markets. Today, I had to push through a couple dozen people at the Happy Boy Farms stand at the Temescal Farmers’ Market to grab a few organic heirloom tomatoes. Don’t worry, they’ll be worth it:

Happy Boy Farms Tomatoes

And there are dozens of peaches, nectarines, plums and pluots available from various farmers. I’m still partial to Kashiwase Farms, which I’ve been patronizing for 6 years. Maybe it’s their incredible variety and sweet, organic fruit. Or maybe it’s their tasting display, that I just can’t resist:

Kashiwase Farms Tasting

Thanks to SF Gate for this photo.

My favorite’s right now are the Artic Sweet white nectarines, White Lady peaches, and the Honey Sweet yellow nectarines. Who needs candy when you have fruits that taste as sweet:

Peaches, Nectarines, Pluots, Yum!

And I think I might overdose on corn and avocados soon. They’re just so damn cheap and yummy at this time of year. Besides, my weirdo cat LOVES chewing on corn husks. I think they’re his favorite toy.

Corn Husks Avocados

Well, enough writing. I need to start thinking about what I’m going to cook this week. While I do that, I’ll keep munching on some yummy organic tamari almonds I picked up today from Lagier Ranches.

I love the summer…

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